Written by: Conor Tallet
On January 27, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order No. 13769, commonly known as the “travel ban.” When the Ninth Circuit blocked it, President Trump issued a “revised travel ban”on March 6, 2017 via Executive Order No. 13780. The Department of Justice has appealed the blocking of the orders to the Supreme Court, and the question as to whether or not the Court will act remains.
The revised order reworked provisions of the first travel ban that were at issue in the Ninth Circuit. Specifically, Section 2(c) of the order temporarily suspends new visas for citizens of six countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The ban’s stated purpose was to decrease the risk of terrorist organizations from entering into the United States. Consequently, the order explained that the six listed countries had been “significantly compromised by terrorist organizations, or contain active conflict zones.” While such a purpose may appear clear on its face, a key question in evaluating this ban has been whether it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Essentially, this means that the government cannot establish an official religion of the United States or pass any laws that favor or inhibit a particular religion.
The primary Establishment Clause test utilized by courts today is derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman, and the rest requires that courts analyze a government action’s purpose, effect, and entanglement with religion. If a court finds the government acted with a primary religious purpose, had the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or was sufficiently entangled with religion, it will strike the law down as unconstitutional in violation of the Establishment Clause. Under this Lemon test, a challenger needs to show only one of the three prongs to succeed.
Here, six Muslim individuals, and three organizations that represented Muslim clients, asserted that they would be harmed by the implementation of the revised travel ban. In turn, they filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court of Maryland seeking a preliminary injunction. The District Court granted the injunction and determined that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of an Establishment Clause claim.
After the ruling was appealed, the Fourth Circuit upheld the Maryland District Court’s decision to block the revised travel ban on May 25, 2017, finding the ban to be in violation of the Establishment Clause. In its analysis, the Fourth Circuit employed the Lemon test and viewed extrinsic evidence on the record from the viewpoint of a reasonable observer to determine that the revised travel ban had a primary religious purpose.
One question that arose revolved around whether or not courts should be permitted to consider extrinsic evidence when assessing the purpose. In the Lemon test analysis, a court determines not only the government’s stated purpose, but also the purpose from a reasonable observer’s standpoint. Thus, in analyzing the purpose from the standpoint of a reasonable observer, it is proper for a court to take extrinsic evidence surrounding the implementation of a government action into account, just as the Fourth Circuit did in this case. However, in an age where society is constantly bombarded with information through countless avenues of communication, it is worth asking how much extrinsic evidence a court should take into consideration when attempting to determine the primary purpose of a governmental action.
In this case, the District Court of Maryland looked to President Trump’s campaign statements, rallies, interviews, and tweets in order to assess the various discussions surrounding the travel ban. More specifically, the court assessed the choice of language such as banning “Muslims” as opposed to banning “terrorists.” Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined that the abundance of extrinsic evidence on the record, “viewed from the standpoint of the reasonable observer, creates a compelling case that [the revised travel ban’s] primary purpose is religious.”
Furthermore, in this case, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court’s use of such extrinsic evidence, in holding that the order was a violation, was proper to show a primary religious purpose disguised in terms of national security to circumvent Establishment Clause scrutiny. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that President Trump’s statements revealed his “desire to exclude Muslims from the United States” in violation of the Establishment Clause.
On June 1, 2017, the Department of Justice filed a petition with the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Fourth Circuit’s decision.
Whether or not the Supreme Court will hear the case remains to be seen. Some experts argue that the court will likely grant certiorari and hear the appeal, saying that “[w]hen a major presidential initiative is ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, a review by the Supreme Court almost always follows.” On the other hand, rulings in the Hawaii District Court, Maryland District Court, Washington District Court, Fourth Circuit, and Ninth Circuit have remained consistent, blocking both the travel ban and the revised travel ban. With consistent interpretation and no circuit splits, some experts argue that there is no reason for the Supreme Court to hear the case. Only time will tell.
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Adam Liptak, The Supreme Court’s Options in the Travel Ban Case, NY Times (Jun. 2, 2017).
Int’l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 2017 WL 2273306 (4th Cir. 2017).
Ryan Lovelace, Will the Supreme Court Take up Trump’s Travel Ban?, Washington Examiner (Jun. 3, 2017).
Int’l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 2017 WL 1018235 (D. Md. 2017).